Bus industry faces £500m recovery challenge in first year

The bus industry has laid out plans for its recovery and long-term sustainability, based on flexible local arrangements and central government support worth up to £500m in the first year alone.

The website movingforwardtogether.co.uk outlines the approach the sector is calling for through the bus and coach industry body, the Confederation of Passenger Transport.

”Local

Speaking at the ADEPT autumn conference, Graham Vidler, chief executive of the CPT, said the bus industry needed to build on the lessons of the pandemic and apply them to the recovery.

'We call our solution to that challenge 'recovery partnerships'. It is built on three principles:

'1) Bus services of the future must be built on future needs of passengers and not just replicate the bus service of the past. If people are rethinking how they travel and if councils are thinking about how best to re-use town and city centres it would be very complacent to just assume the network of yesterday will be fit for tomorrow.

'2) It will take time for those needs of tomorrow to emerge and stabilise and while they do it is vital central government provide funding to nurture the new network.

'3) That new network must be defined and agreed locally; CPT and councils working together to define needs in the context of your overall local transport plans.'

Mr Vidler added that those partnerships which come into force when the current system of support ends 'would be backed by central government funding we believe in the order £500m in their first year'.

He added these local and bespoke recovery partnerships 'would be binding agreements with binding commitments on both sides' and empowered locally to decide how best to spend central government grant money.

The CPT wants the Government to sign up to the principles in the upcoming national bus strategy and for them to support local transport departments to develop plans in partnership with industry.

Before COVID, more than five million people used the bus every day. This plummeted by 90% during the first lockdown, though services were kept up at around 40%-50% to support key workers and essential retail.

Passenger numbers only climbed back to 60% of pre-COVID levels by late October.

The industry has been dependent on two critical sources of funding. The first comes from local authorities, which continued to pay the budgeted levels of concessionary fare reimbursement regardless of the number of passengers.

The second is from central government, which paid a top-up grant called the coronavirus bus services support grant. This was designed to meet the differences between audited costs and audited revenues so the industry would break even in the round over this period.

Mr Vidler said the support 'has been invaluable - it was very quickly delivered at the start of this pandemic and very consistently maintained since'.

The coach industry he said had not been so lucky, where the pandemic had had 'a devastating impact'.

Mr Vidler said the industry had not received any bespoke support 'as it seems to falls in the cracks between transport and leisure'.

'It has been a postcode lottery for operators trying to access grant based support from local authorities who are often unclear what the guidance from central government is encouraging them to do.

'Almost all tourist work has been lost, which is the backbone of the industry. At the peak of lockdown, which was also the beginning of the high season for the industry, 98% of the UK coach fleet was off the road and stayed there for most of the summer.'

The implications go much further than the industry itself. The coach sector plays a significant role in getting around 600,000 children to school.

The price of these services is kept low and effectively subsidised by the rest of the industry's work, which means many operators are now struggling to provide their contracted home to school services.

'One operator told me her home to school contracts are losing her £30,000 a month at the moment, another operator in Wales has handed back contracts that get 4,000 children to school,' Mr Vidler said.

He called on local authorities to help the coach industry get access to discretionary grants such as the new additional constrictions grant, maintain a constructive dialogue with operators and urge government to support the true cost of delivering school services.

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